Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Women in the Kitchen | I quit, too.

Via Eat Me Daily.

Paula Forbes wrote an interesting article about women working in kitchens and the lack of famous female chefs on Eat Me Daily last month. It's been on my mind lately, and that means a re-post! I hope to catch any readers who may have fallen through the cracks, especially if they're chicks working in kitchens.

I have worked in kitchens in some capacity for over four years, so this article made me reflect on my time in the back of the house. The environments in most of my jobs have been centered around men. I'm talking dirty jokes, nasty music, and in some cases, offensive differences in pay. Later jobs as a cook paid well and were actually fun. I learned how to be "one of the guys", taking part in all the jokes, which do fuel camaraderie, and just learning how to talk smack in general. I seemed to "evolve" into dealing well with jokes that were textbook sexual harassment, and probably made the work environment a little more difficult to deal with for the women around me (the irony is not lost on me).

The thing is, the most important part of "making it" in a kitchen (for me, anyway) was my ability to hold my own when the tickets started pouring in, and my ability to perform the other parts of my job well. "Making it", in this instance, meant having the respect and collaboration of my co-workers, and the recognition from my supervisors in the form of fair pay, raises, and promotions to more coveted positions on the line.

I have had generally good experiences, then, especially in my corporate career. While I don't think I'm alone, there definitely is a higher ratio of men to women working in kitchens across the United States, despite more women enrolling in culinary school. My particular restaurant espoused equal opportunity for advancement based on performance, but also had fewer female kitchen managers and owners in general than men. This company just settled a lawsuit with the EEOC over discriminating against women for promotions.

Quite a few women do stick with cooking and either become "one of the guys" or carve out careers with their feminine personalities intact, but man, does it take toughness and tenacity. All those Food Network programs do a middling job showing that working in a kitchen is a physically-demanding job. I find that most women on the network aren't shown slinging tongs in a high-pressure environment surrounded by sweating, aggressive men. It's hard to describe how much like a machine a properly-running kitchen is: you need to work in sync with your co-workers to produce perfect plates. It's not brain surgery, but it takes quite a bit of timing, discipline, stamina, and focus, as well as talent to perform well consistently.

These requirements apply to both men and women, but add social stress from sexual harassment and discrimination to a female's mental checklist upon clocking in to work. No wonder there are countless articles featuring top female chefs discussing why they're such a rare breed. The fact is, the restaurant world is a sexist, cutthroat business that many aren't prepared for properly. Maybe women just go about getting what they want differently than men do, as Alex Raij of Txikito says in this Village Voice blog post. Maybe all of these female chefs are paving the way slowly but surely for the rest of the ladies, and their efforts will pay off in the next decade or two.

Anyway, this article made me think about how strange it is for women to not be represented proportionately in the restaurant world's awards ceremonies and "top chef"-type articles, since there are so many of them graduating from culinary school and actually working in restaurants. I wonder, how many women are willing to follow through with a culinary career? I stopped cooking for the same reasons Paula stopped: it was hard on my body, and the hours were stupid- long and late. I wasn't willing to sacrifice my life for that, and maybe the answer is that most women aren't willing to sacrifice their lives, either. This is a complex issue that I'm not prepared to handle right now, so read her article for a bit of history and for some interesting links. I hope that aspiring female chefs read the post, and take heart.

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